It was one of those mildly blue and infinitely tolerant New Orleans days that presages Mardi Gras and makes the locals shiver deliciously with anticipation. In the morning a huge wave of sadness engulfed the nation when the shuttle Columbia burned in the sky. One of the images on TV was of a long flaming arrow tipped by a bright star. I remembered the fork-shape of the Challenger disaster, an indelible image now joined by this, like the beginning of a cosmic alphabet of sorrow.
Well, not the beginning. The burning bodies of flyers have been inscribing the sky since Icarus. Something tries to keep us here. We won't stay down. That's the whole story. Or that would be the whole story if it wasn't somehow human nature to see omens everywhere, especially when they are writ this large, and on TV, too. In Baghdad they said that God was punishing America for making war on Saddam. What will they say when we actually do make war? That God is punishing Saddam? Im'shalla.
Something there is in the human mind that won't stay still until it glows with superstition. One of my readers, Jeff Porteous, writes: "It seems to me that when a star suddenly goes nova in the noon-day sky above east Texas, sage-brush cradle of our soon-to-be warrior king, Geo. Bush, and not just any noontime star, but a shooting star bearing seven incinerated angels, then what we are beholding goes beyond the limit of national tragedy, and enters, instead, into the realm of national omen. Harbinger of events to come. Soon to be on a scream near you. Not that anyone expects Mr. Bush to give heed. Though, when one thinks of that, one thinks that maybe nothing's really sadder ... than an ill-omen read wrong. Or not read at all." Now this may wash in a mosque or in a Christian prophetic church, but I'd keep looking at those fuel tanks if I were you. If every human tragedy in the long history of exploration was an omen, then we know why we've had war throughout history: God was punishing us for sticking our noses in his Virgin Heavens. If everybody'd stayed home and worshipped Gravity, we'd still be in the Garden of Eden (Iraq), listening to God (Saddam). Therefore, exploration is a Zionist plot. Everyone knows that Jews are restless. There is no end to this kind of absurdity, but there it is, gnawing like a harpy on a juju bone.
After the Challenger tragedy in 1986 the biggest historical event to follow was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. If it was an omen, it was a good one, portending the liberation of millions of people from horrid dictatorships. So, if one buys this "omen" business, our newest tragedy might point toward something like that, which wouldn't be bad. In our small quadrant of the world, meanwhile, we celebrated another wonder of the alphabet, a book about the French Quarter of New Orleans. Then we went to a birthday party where we listened to Jack Fine play his magic trumpet. Then we ended the night at the Abby where red-clad fairies fresh from the Fairy Ball were having post-Fairy Ball drinks and bumping sparkly wings and hats into the approaching dawn. Gravity be damned.